The Stack Archive

Twitter’s withdrawal of reliable share count API is a bold monetising move

Mon 5 Oct 2015

This month, as part of a redesign of its social media sharing buttons, Twitter is going to turn off the public API which has made it possible for plugin developers and amateur coders alike to display, in the context of a web-page itself, how often that page has been shared via Twitter. For many who actually make a living out of leveraging sharing information as part of their business model, it’s the end of a free ride: after the shut-down of the ability to read back statistics from a JSON endpoint, those wanting to continue to display vanity metrics will need to either accept the limitations of the aggregate and non-comprehensive REST API, or dig deep to begin to use more comprehensive statistics via Gnip – the acquisition of which by Twitter in 2014 ballooned the social media company’s stock by 11 points.

The groundwork for Gnip to monetise what had once been free was laid this August with the announcement of the availability of a Full Archive Search API. From the point of view of third-party Twitter developers, the FAS API combines with the death of the JSON endpoints to effectively ‘paywall’ meaningful and reliable Twitter share information.

The remaining ‘free’ service is pedestrian compared to the luxury sedan of Gnip; the REST API is far more complicated to hook in to development projects, and requires individual permissions to be applied, and so does not represent ‘open source’ share data.

J. P. Morgan’s advice that ‘If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” seems to apply to Gnip, which doesn’t even have a public sliding scale of costs going from $99 p/m to ‘Phone now’. According to a rather militant post by the creators of the Social Warfare sharing plugin (which this site also uses), the entry point for developers to restore their current level of available Twitter share information is ‘cost-prohibitive. Fees aren’t posted on the Gnip site, but developers will need to pony up thousands of dollars each month just to get on board.’

BlitzMetrics CTO Dennis Yu blogged that his company had been forced to pay 5,000 to $20,000 per month for access to Twitter data via Gnip:

‘…while forcing everyone to go through GNIP may yield Twitter a few million dollars, this is penny-wise and pound foolish. Twitter’s potential advertising business is not worth maiming for data access fees.’

Some major players in the third-party Twitter development scene are undoubtedly going to be affected by the luxury paywalling of tweet share data; outfits such as Tweetdeck and Tweetbot – the latter of which has been openly criticised by Twitter in the past for presenting an interface too similar to Twitter’s own.

Twitter needed the stock market fillip that came with the acquisition of Gnip; since it floated in 2013, its stock price has descended from a 2014 peak of $69 to its current valuation of $26.32:


The reasons behind Twitter’s re-consolidation of share data access

It seems that Twitter is going for broke before it goes broke – the killing of JSON endpoint access and the forthcoming extension of the maximum characters allowable in a tweet portend a re-envisioning of the service’s future and a radical and arguably long overdue departure from its mobile-based roots, back when the low-bandwidth technology of the text message allowed one fragile bridge to the emergent social internet in the days before smartphones swept all before them.

In 2012 Twitter introduced a tightening of the rules about how developers could use available Twitter information in their applications and their own APIs, requiring 0auth authentication and introducing a number of limitations about how API-accessed data could be presented.

The reasoning behind the shut-down of JSON is open to interpretation. Social Warfare’s interesting but chaotic post suggests a number of possibilities, including: the obsolescence of the Twitter count within the very restricted (or non-existent) interfaces of the Internet of Things; the expense of serving out free JSON APIs to third party developers who then repackage Twitter’s property and apply their own business premium (or advertising) instead of Twitter’s; a drive to push users back towards the native Twitter interface and improve returns on Twitter’s own advertising models; and even a general tendency towards business suicide!

The new ‘hidden’ undercurrents of Twitter-powered influencers?

It is possible that new proxying services will emerge to pick up the slack and attempt to provide non-expiring real-time data on Twitter trends without obliging users to engage with Gnip’s sales department, though it seems likely that Twitter will have anticipated the possibility of third-party middlemen seeking to pay for monthly Gnip access and then rebrand the information as a workable economy of scale for cash-strapped third-party developers and plugin coders. A per-seat charge is enough to obviate this model.

It may even be possible for ‘passive’ (non-API) observation of Twitter activity to provide an index which, reliable or not, may rival or even exceed Twitter’s own monetised user base by dint of being free or at least affordable.

But on the assumption that the most accurate information on Twitter activity remains the most valuable, the proposed move is tectonic: all that accurate information is taken away from us paupers and given to large companies which can afford metrics-based charging from Gnip in order to power their own aggregated version of what is ‘trending’. Such a company, given enough adherents and market confidence, would be in a position to push content automatically, jealously guarding the ‘accurate’ information and representing it – or withholding, exaggerating or even censoring it – according to its own business needs: Twitter trending without accountability.

The JSON disablement will also be of interest to the academic community which have relied on this rich source of accurate open data to perform real-time studies on how society reacts to events and clusters together. Perhaps special dispensation will be made on a per-case basis.

On the matter of Twitter’s API retrenchment, Dennis Yu concludes:

‘Maybe the marketing automation or tag management players will come in to save us, for the geeks that care to discuss. But for the rest of us, we mourn the slow irrelevance and demise of Twitter at their own hand.’

Added stock price information – 15:20


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